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Morelos: land of culinary contrasts

Karen Hursh Graber

The Mexican state of Morelos, although diminutive in size, boasts an impressively large cultural amalgam. Long before Europeans arrived and settled in Cuernavaca and Tepoztlan, now upscale resort areas, groups from many parts of Mexico found their way to this area of natural springs and a nearly perfect climate.

The Olmec presence in Chalcatzingo in around 1500 BC marked the beginning of a period of continuous migration of different indigenous groups of the nahua family. Teotihuacanas, Toltecs, Xochimilcas, Chalcas and Tlahuicas were all forebears of the present day inhabitants of Morelos. The state that housed Emperor Maximilian's summer home was also the birthplace of Emiliano Zapata and his indigenous ancestors, and continues to be a place of cultural contrasts, not least in the area of cuisine.

The city of Cuernavaca itself, settled in the 10th and 11th centuries AD by the Tlahuicas and later dominated by Aztecs and Spaniards, is famous for its markets and restaurants. Long after Cortes built his palace there in 1529, the city continued to be a mecca for well-heeled visitors, including residents of Mexico City and international celebrities and jet setters. The heiress Barbara Hutton and the artist and collector Robert Brady built lavish homes that are now open to visitors who can only imagine the meals that were served in their elegant dining rooms.

With this kind of clientele, it is no wonder that Cuernavaca became home to some outstanding restaurants, and the lush foliage of the "City of Eternal Spring" that attracted filmmakers provides impressive garden settings for many dining spots. At Las Mañanitas, diners enjoy chicken in green mole, tortilla soup and trout almandine, among other selections, surrounded by tropical plants and birds. At Reposado, nouvelle Mexican offerings include huitlacoche fondue, salmon in adobo and game hen in peanut mole.

In addition to the more famous restaurants, Cuernavaca has its share of mom-and-pop eateries like Restaurant Taxco, which features a good variety of enchiladas with various fillings and sauces, and local specialties like rabbit in ancho chile adobo and chicken in peach sauce. The latter is a very characteristic dish of the region since it combines chicken with fruit, of which Morelos has seemingly endless varieties.

Because it attracts visitors and part- and full-time residents from other countries, Cuernavaca prides itself on offering an "international" cuisine. French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and German restaurants are easy to find, along with food from other regions of Mexico.

An entirely different type of cooking, nearly purely indigenous, is found in the state's nahua villages. Here, the cultivation of fruit and vegetables and the raising of animals for food (one concession to the European influence) combine with the age-old hunting and gathering methods of the ancestors to provide sustenance. Although villages such as Tlayacapan, famous for its hand-decorated, lead-free earthenware, attract some tourism, most of them are inhabited by self-sufficient people who raise or forage for just about everything they eat.

Much of the diet in these communities is made up of food eaten long before the Europeans arrived: verdolagas (purslane) and other wild greens, herbs, wild mushrooms and berries, and small animals such as rabbit, possum, quail, badger, iguana, armadillo and a variety of river fish.

People also continue to raise the traditional family plots of corn, beans and squash, as well as cultivating fruit and vegetables for sale in the region's markets. Pears, plums, apples, peaches, avocado, lime, orange, apricot, quince, mango, pomegranate, several kinds of zapote, blackberries and raspberries are only a few of the fruits that thrive in Morelos.

In the village of Hueyapan, famous for its fruit production, the barter system is alive and well organized. Locals trade fruit with people from neighboring villages for clay cooking pots, palm mats and baskets, and other household items. Hueyapan is also known as a prime area for wild mushroom gathering, with at least fifteen edible species found in abundance for about five months of the year. These are usually prepared in chile and tomato sauces, soups and stews.

Wild mushrooms often take the place of meat in rainy season meals, since chickens and pigs are raised for special meals and cows, because of their milk production, are almost never slaughtered. These special meals can be family occasions like weddings, or ritual meals such as those offered during feast days.

Anthropologist Eduardo Hernandez Cortes calls one nahua community, Tetelcingo, "a village with a very intense religious festival life, where food and the agricultural cycle play a very important role." On the day of Cristo Rey, the streets are adorned with arches of sugarcane and corn, altars of cantaloupe, watermelon and bananas, and huge loaves of egg bread in the shapes of animals. On the day of San Lucas, food offerings of fish in green mole, plum atole and aguardiente are made to the old gods, the Ouajkes or rain spirits.

Besides being a center of religious life, Tetelcingo is an area of mushroom cultivation, where the hongos de cazahuate ( Pleurotus ostreatus or oyster mushrooms), which formed part of the traditional diet, are now grown by local women who have been taught through programs sponsored by the Biology Institute of the UNAM and other academic groups.

Like Tetelcingo, the village of Cuentepec, where the entire population speaks Nahuatl and the children attend bilingual Nahuatl-Spanish schools, is devoted to the concept of food as ritual. Many of its festivals reflect the pre-Hispanic cosmovision regarding food items as offerings to the señores del aire y de la lluvia -- the lords of the air and rain. Between the day of the Asunción, a feast of the Virgin on August 15, and the day of San Miguel, on September 28, a total of thirty ritual offering meals are prepared in Cuentepec. Although most of the food offerings, such as tamales nejos, made with masa cooked with ash, as well as beans, moles and pipians, are shared by members of the community, the ritual tamal made for the air and water lords is buried. (And just as well, because this contains the head of an old rooster whose beak has been filled with fresh tobacco.)

Although the culinary landscape of the nahua villages seems far removed from that of Cuernavaca'a upscale restaurants, the two meet, as many things do in Mexico, in the marketplace. The mercados of Cuernavaca, Tepotzlan, Cuautla and other cities are largely inhabited by the indigenous women who sell the tamales, tortillas, sopes, tlacoyos, moles and pipianes that have been sustaining them for thousands of years and whose ingredients and techniques will no doubt continue to be the inspirations for many creative young chefs.

Below are some recipes from Morelos that combine the old, the new, and the always delicious food of this small and beautiful state.

Braised chicken with apples: Pollo con manzanas
Oyster mushroom frittata: Tortilla de huevo con cazahuates
Lime leaf drink: Agua con hojas de limon

Published or Updated on: April 1, 2005 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2005
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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